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What’s in a name? A look at cabinet changes since Confederation

By Laura Ryckewaert      
The Canadian ministry in 1945, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first cabinet after the 2015 general election. Photographs courtesy of Library and Archives Canada by Paul Horsdal and Jake Wright
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It’s a Shakespearean question oft-mulled throughout the ages, and when it comes to the various stylings of the Canadian cabinet, behind the many ministerial monikers and match-ups are insights into the history and growth of our country.

“The story here is it’s an evolution of a country and the growth of the welfare state,” says Memorial University Professor Alex Marland.

Ministry name changes are “telling of how the government sees the changes happening in the country,” says Ryerson University Professor Patrice Dutil. “It reflects how government has changed. It reflects to a certain degree how Canada has changed,” he says

Throughout Canadian history, ministries have changed names for two main reasons, says Dutil. First, the political, to indicate that the government is addressing a particular issue or need; and second, for administrative reasons, to organize the government based on its mandate.

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“You have the introduction of new portfolios and new ministries that really reflect changes in society, but also in the international environment that Canada is reacting to,” says Matthew Kerby, a Canadian academic who specializes in politics and international relations.

Of the 15 cabinet titles that existed upon Confederation in 1867, only two remain identical in name today: the minister of Finance and the minister of Justice and Attorney General.

Another, minister of Agriculture, is near identical—with Agri-Food having been tacked-on in 1995 after the establishment of an Agri-Food Innovation Fund.

Others still exist as part of a larger portfolio overseen by a different minister, like the receiver general for Canada, now under the responsibility of the minister for Public Services and Procurement—which itself was known as the minister for public works and government services up until 2015.

The Fathers of Confederation commemorative stamp to celebrate 50 years. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian government

With the Dominion of Canada newly formed in 1867, after much negotiation and opposition, a number of ministries had an inward focus. There was the minister of the interior, who was also then the superintendent-general of Indian affairs; the minister of inland revenue; the secretary of state for the provinces; or the secretary of state for Canada, for example.

“John A. Macdonald’s cabinets had the instruments of nation-building represented,” says Kerby.

Today, there are 34 cabinet titles held by 30 ministers, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also the minister for Youth and for Intergovernmental Affairs.

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr is also the associate Defence minister, and Government House Leader Bardish Chagger is also the Small Business and Tourism minister.

Marie-Claude Bibeau also has a dual role as the minister of International Development and La Francophonie.

Beyond the many ministerial monikers used over successive governments there have been further changes, which have similarly reflected shifting priorities.

Various federal agencies and branches of bureaucracy have been made the responsibility of different ministers; departments previously given their own seat at the cabinet table have come under the responsibility of others; and federal agencies under larger departments have been made the sole focus of a minister, or a minister of state.

Back in 1867, for example, the postmaster general, responsible for Canada Post, had a seat in cabinet. That lasted until 1981, when the old post office department was abolished and instead made a crown corporation under the responsibility of the minister of Transport—a role which had itself been added to cabinet in 1936, absorbing the responsibilities of the old ministers of marine, and of railways and canals.

Ahead of this change to Canada’s postal service—during the 1970s—major strikes had rocked the Post Office, prompting the government to revamp its set-up.

“Canada Post became an agency of the government, more arm’s length, so that every labour dispute was not brought to the floor of the House,” says Dutil.

The current minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, around since 2015, is responsible for 17 different federal departments and agencies, a number of which—like the department of Industry or the regional economic development agencies—previously had distinct places in cabinet.

Or there’s the example of the minister for Status of Women, first named in 1971— a special appointment then-given to Liberal Bob Andras, who was also minister of state for urban affairs—following the Royal Commission on the Status of Women the year prior.

Later made a secretary of state position during the Chrétien government, it became a minister of state role in 2003, combined with Multiculturalism. Now styled as a full minister, its bureaucracy nonetheless remains an agency under the department of Canadian Heritage.

Departments have existed without a specific cabinet office; and ministers have existed without specific departments—all part of the shuffling of the cabinet deck.

“In part, the expansion and retraction of portfolios is also a reflection of internal party politics and parliamentary politics as well,” says Kerby.

Federal departments and agencies are born out of legislation, but the formation and stylings of the federal cabinet is at the prime minister’s discretion.

“[Prime Ministers] are the final arbiters of what is going to be created, and I think that inevitably, those bureaucratic organizations and the labels that they wear are indicative of the priorities of the prime minister,” says Dutil, author of Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins under Macdonald, Laurier and Borden.

Some cabinet offices have, in particular, been subject to many re-brandings over the years.

The Cabinet Room (Room 235) in the East Block of the Parliament Buildings. Photograph courtesy of the Privy Council Office

Known as the minister for Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship since 2015, the portfolio has undergone many a name change and re-organization since a minister of colonization and immigration was first created in 1917.

In 1936, its bureaucracy was swallowed- up by the then-minister of mines and resources, and it didn’t re-emerge as a distinct cabinet role until 1950—under then-prime minister Louis St-Laurent—restyled as the minister of citizenship and immigration.

In 1966, that portfolio becomes the minister of manpower and immigration, and a decade later, of employment and immigration. A minister of multiculturalism and citizenship pops up in 1991, although a few years later, responsibility for immigration was returned to the reconstituted minister of citizenship and immigration.

Employment, meanwhile, was eventually taken over by a new minister of human resources and skills development in 1996—responsibilities today overseen by the minister of Employment, Workforce Development, and Labour.

Tying portfolios together reflects a desire by the government to connect issues, for example, “that immigration leads to citizenship, and that it’s proper for a bureaucracy to be dealing with both issues—there’s an idealism embedded in that,” says Dutil.

The minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, as it’s been called since 2015, is another title that’s seen multiple revamps. A separate minister responsible for indian affairs and northern development wasn’t created until 1966—with that branch of bureaucracy previously overseen by the minister of mines and resources (since 1936), and later in 1950, by the minister for citizenship and immigration.

At Confederation, there was a superintendent-general of indian affairs—a role held by the secretary of state for Canada and later, by the minister of the interior. In 2011, it was renamed aboriginal affairs and northern development.

According to Kerby, one of the most significant changes to ministerial monikers over Canada’s history was former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien’s decision to name a minister of Foreign Affairs in 1993.

The decision to shed the ‘external affairs’ brand carried “real political meaning,” says Kerby, as it had been styled as such before then because, as Canada’s part of the commonwealth, Britain was not a foreign government. The change, he says, reflected the “pillars of Canadian foreign policy that Chrétien was trying to promote” to Canadians.

“What you see going on here is a real break in Canada’s image of itself and with respect to its colonial and commonwealth heritage,” he says. “This was a really important name change that both served branding purposes, but was also a reflection of Canada’s expanded role in terms of foreign affairs.”

Making changes to ministry titles and structures requires “an awful lot of work,” says Dutil, from amendments to legislation, to administrative adjustments, to new business cards and the like.

While changes in government have long prompted ministerial name changes, Marland says these changes now seem increasingly motivated by branding.

“There’s a greater relationship between buzzwords that would play well in elections and that would have gone through focus groups and opinion polls … which then find their way into the language of ministerial portfolios, whereas years ago it would have been much more bureaucratic and functional and the order of business,” he says.

Beyond the various names and cabinet portfolio compositions over the years has been an evolution, and diversification, of who holds them; from the all-white, all- male cabinet of 1867, to the gender-equal, ethnically diverse cabinet of today.

The history of Canada, as told by cabinet

Changes to the roster of cabinet titles were generally few and far between before the Laurier government came to power in 1896.

Under Sir Wilfrid Laurier, three new cabinet postings were set up, most notably the minister of labour in 1909, coming almost a decade after a department of labour was created in 1900, until then overseen by the postmaster general.

“There’s a whole succession of events, namely a bunch of strikes out West that got very nasty, and there was a great demand for the government to get involved,” says Dutil. “Laurier decided to create a ministry of labour because he wanted to show that his government cared about labour conditions and wanted to do something about it.”

In 1912, under Sir Robert Borden, the role of secretary of state for external affairs was created, first held by the prime minister ex officio. The department of external affairs had been created in 1909—20 years after a trade department was established—and until 1912 was overseen by the secretary of state for Canada, though Dutil notes the prime minister had always “de facto” controlled the file.

During WWI, Borden adds a number of new offices to his cabinet, starting with a solicitor general of Canada (1915), who supported the minister of Justice and, in time, came to be responsible for the RCMP. By 2003, post-9/11, it had morphed into the minister for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

A minister of the overseas military forces was appointed in 1916, and the next year, a minister for immigration and colonization is named. While immigration was limited through the war, there was anticipation it would spike post-war, and that soldiers returning home would be interested in farmland in western Canada, says Dutil.

Around the war’s end, in 1918, a minister of soldiers’ civil re-establishment is appointed.

“The government had to show that it cared about veterans, it had to demonstrate that it was creating a bureaucracy,” says Dutil.

Significantly, during WWI, the federal government created the not-so-temporary corporate and income taxes to help fund war efforts. These new streams of federal revenue contributed to the growth of government, its role in the lives of Canadians, and the evolution of a “social safety net” and “welfare state,” says Marland.

In turn, a minister of national revenue is named to cabinet in 1927, in part replacing the old minister of customs and excise, which itself had replaced the re-emerged, combined role of minister of customs and inland revenue in 1921.

“The size of government and the role of government in peoples lives was very different in WWI than it is 100 years later,” says Marland.

In 1928, a minister of pensions and national health is named, in part absorbing the role of the minister of soldiers’ civil re-establishment.

A separate federal department of health had already been created in law in 1919—with the separation of bureaucratic oversight for health from the department of agriculture happening amid the
global Spanish influenza epidemic—but had previously been overseen by other ministers, starting with the president of the Privy Council and ending with the minister for soldiers’ civil re-establishment.

By 1944, a minister of national health and welfare is named—at the same time a separate minister of Veterans Affairs is appointed—and which, in 1996, became the minister of Health, as we know it today.

Between the world wars, in 1923, a minister of National Defence is appointed, absorbing the roles of the ministers of naval services and of militia and defence.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland; Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu; Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef; Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould; and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. P&I photograph by Jake Wright

A slate of new, war-focused cabinet offices are created during WWII, only two of which—minister of Veterans Affairs and associate minister of National Defence—remain today, although the latter has faded in and out over the years.

“An important change that occurs is with the Second World War and the post-Second World War period, because it’s at this point that you see the evolution of the social welfare state in Canada,” says Kerby. “The expansion of portfolios at this time reflects the expansion of the Canadian state.”

A federal minister of industry first pops up in 1963—preceded by the minister of consumer and corporate affairs—later getting grouped with trade and commerce in 1969, and with science and technology in 1990. The role is once again restored as simply the minister of industry in 1995 up until 2015, when the industry department is swept-up in the portfolio of the minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. A minister of International Trade isn’t named until 1983.

The 1960s and 70s are in general a time of much change. Under the first Trudeau government, there was the creation of the leader of the government in the Senate, a minister for Status of Women, a minister of state for urban affairs (ultimately lasting eight years), a minister of state for science and technology, and a new department and corresponding minister of environment are created.

During the 1980s, regional economic agencies are also boosted in prominence, with a minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and a minister of Western Economic Diversification both appointed in 1988.

Another notable year was 1996, when a minister of Canadian Heritage was named—in part absorbing the remaining responsibilities of the secretary of state for Canada, as well as of the old minister of communications and the multiculturalism file.

A minister of human resources development is also named that year, and a minister for international cooperation, now known as minister for International Development (2015).

The International Development file had before that been overseen by the minister for external relations.

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